amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Back To The Future

Version francaise

I promised two updates from Puimisson with news with Jeff Coutelou but, first of all, a follow up from last time. Jeff tells me that fine weather has held back any outbreak of mildew though more rain is forecast this weekend. He cannot touch the soils and the grass and flowers which have grown around the vines as that would certainly trigger the mildew spores which live in the soil. This growth will compete with the vines for nutrients and, if Jeff has to leave it in place all year, for fear of triggering disease, then it will lower the yields.

All is not bleak however. Jeff was enjoying the sunshine last week and the vines’ lush growth. He has also assembled an interesting team to help work in the vines, local people who can work safely without travelling. There is an ex seminarian, a teacher, a young man wanting to learn about winemaking, a scientist and others. Sadly, not me.

Fermentations finishing, 2020

Last years’ wines stalled towards the end of their fermentations at the end of 2019 but the warmer temperatures of Spring rectified that, reawakening the fermentations and the wines are now completed and settled. The various wines have been assembled into the blends which Jeff wanted for the 2019 cuvées. They will rest, be bottled in the next few months but not for sale until much later in the year.

Part of the blending record, giving nothing away!

Most exciting though, there has been a lot of looking to the future. A new plantation of mainly Aramon and Mourvedre with smaller amounts of Aramon Blanc and Servant, an old Languedoc variety which is very little planted. Yet another addition to the Coutelou catalogue, reversing the long term decline in plantings of the grape (down to just 75 hectares in 2011.)

Other work has been done to put up the stakes and wires for plantations from the last couple of years, for example in the parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which had been fallow for years and in Segrairals, shown in the photo below.

And Jeff has been looking still further into the future. When he retires Jeff intends to move to St. Chinian where part of the Coutelou family had their traditional home. The 4 hectares of vines which were there have been grubbed up and replanted with the varieties of the area (and no doubt some typical Jeff extras) as well as trees such as oak and olive, shrubs and plants too. This was a major task and timed for Jeff’s birthday too as plants and vines are what excite him.

So, the virus has undoubtedly altered the way that Jeff has had to do things but, happily, it hasn’t brought the domaine to a halt. The vines are growing well, there will be a 2020 vintage. And there is plenty to look forward to once we are past this.


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Looking to the future

No particular theme to this week’s article, more a blending of various thoughts and ideas. I will be updating from Puimisson in the next article as Jeff Coutelou keeps me up to date with all that is happening there, which makes me happy but also sad not to be there.

Yesterday was one of those occasions when I had an article pretty much ready to run and then I clicked on a website and found someone had pretty much beaten me to it. This time it was an interesting article by Hannah Fuellenkemper on The Morning Claret website, which is one I follow and heartily recommend. It follows up the issue of natural wine certification by looking at not just what winemakers need to be doing for that (and whether it is worthwhile) but what they should be doing extra. I was thinking along similar lines, as we go through this pandemic crisis surely we should take the time to reflect on how we live and what we can do to make the world better in future. The world of wine included.

Getting every tiny part of every piece of equipment clean uses a lot of water

Fuellenkemper tackles issues such as the use of water, certainly an issue in the Languedoc that I have highlighted before. Jeff recirculates water and has his own well but that is not common. Water usage is high in winemaking, especially natural wines where equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned to eliminate any risk of contamination. She then criticises the use of cleaning chemicals which I understand but, believe me, pips and bits of grape skin get into the tiniest spaces and need to be cleansed. Sometimes a small amount of chemical might be needed to sterilise machinery, though it is then washed intensively with water to get rid of residues.

Heavy bottles, use of plastic are issues I have covered before, why some wines have glass weighing almost 1kg is beyond me. Sparkling wines do need thicker glass because of the pressure within but I have had far too many still wines in heavy bottles for no good reason other than to give an air of quality, not always matched by their contents.

Vines stretching everywhere, Oic Vissou in the background

One further issue raised is that of monoculture. Living in the Languedoc it still amazes me that there is such an expanse of vines, they cover a huge surface area, 223,000 hectares. Jeff is unusual in having planted many hectares of trees, shrubs and flowers to provide diversity and a shelter for beneficial wildlife such as bats. It has made him the target of vandalism in the past when in fact it is the way that vineyards need to be.

One bottle I drank recently also made me think of diversity. La Vigne d’Albert from Tour des Gendres in the Bergerac region has Merlot and the two Cabernets like so many wines from there but it also has Périgord (aka Mérille) and Abouriou, a little Cot (or Malbec) and Fer Servadou.

This no sulphites added wine was big and bold, a glass on the third day after opening still had tannin and an earthy, red fruit profile. However, it was the use of the obscure grape varieties which made it a noteworthy wine for me. Mérille / Périgord is only planted on about 100 hectares in the world, mainly in the Bergerac and Fronton areas. Abouriou has more planting (470ha in 2006), is another south western native grape and possibly has more impact on the wine than Mérille with greater tannins and colour as well as some of those red fruit aromas I detected.

As readers will know one of my favourite things about Jeff’s vineyards is the huge number of grape varieties, thirty or more. As well as complexity and variety I think that different types of vine has to be good for the vineyard, diversity and the fauna of the countryside. Moreover I believe there is a need to seek alternatives from the main grape varieties which dominate the world of wine but which may not suit vineyard regions in future because of the effects of climate change.

This table shows how the Languedoc has actually increased plantings of those dominant varieties this century at the expense of more indigenous, regional grapes, commercial demand winning over common sense and the future of a healthy vineyard region. So, I applaud Tour des Gendres, Jeff and all those seeking to put the earth and diversity first not the supermarkets.

Finally at a time of lockdown I have been pondering on travel and carbon footprints. Travel is one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of life, I have been fortunate to meet winegrowers in Australia, New Zealand and across Europe with other journeys not featuring wine (I know!). I read wine writers who are constantly on the move flying to countries for assignments, commissions and competition judging. Is that sustainable? Is it compatible with demands on winemakers to be more environmentally aware? Whenever and however we emerge from this crisis I do think we should all consider just how much travel is sustainable.

In the meantime I wish you all good health, stay safe.


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Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

Every year Jeff sends out a New Year friendship card to regular clients and friends. The 2020 version highlights the ongoing protests in France about pensions, I particularly appreciated the mobility scooter with bottles in its basket. Inside is a résumé of 2019 and what happened in the vineyards and vendanges. Here’s a quick summary.

The winter of 18-19 saw a healthy rainfall of 400mm in October and November which went a long way to replenish the water levels. Budding began at the start of April, a normal date. Spring was colder and drier than usual and that slowed down growth and the date of véraison, when the grapes change colour. However, there was little or no disease other than a little coulure, where bunches have gaps. The major problem of 2019 came in June with an exceptional period of heat and the start of a very dry summer. This meant that as harvest began the grapes were struggling to reach phenolic ripeness when tannins are ripe and supple. Harvest lasted just over two weeks after starting a little later than normal at the start of September. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and clean, and very concentrated. “The winemaker is more than satisfied with the results achieved.”

The lack of rain (100mm from January to August) and the exceptional heatwave of June serve as a warning to what faces us with climate change.

After harvest things seemed to be going very well thank you. Plenty of nitrogen, good yeasts and healthy grapes, meant fermentation started well. But, there’s always a but, the wines have struggled to finish those fermentations. This has been the story across the region from other winemakers. Theories abound, the most likely is that the heat and dryness encouraged an excess of potash in the grape must, raising pH levels and so stopping fermentation. Soutirages, moving wine from the bottom of the tank to the top, helps to keep the tank clean and healthy and winter will help tartar to develop which will boost the fermentation when temperatures start to rise again.

The above means that it has been difficult to plan blending as even Jeff cannot be certain of how each tank will taste. However, there will be a wine of white and gris (Grenache for example) in amphora, an orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, a Spring red and a Carignan, Castets and Morastel red wine. Plus the classic Coutelou cuvées with Syrah and Grenache to the fore.

These days the domaine is known as Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou so a word on the spirits. Gin, eau de vie, Kina will be joined by new bottles of an aromatic spirit and a mint based drink.

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

And in the vines? 200 metres of new hedgerows to replace those destroyed by malicious fires a couple of years ago, new olive trees planted too. A new parcel of Cinsault and a white parcel near Sainte Suzanne of Macabeu and Clairette were planted. So no retiring just yet!


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Grapes galore and Galet

Happy New Year to readers, we shall see what 2020 brings. Hopefully more excellent wines like those I described in my last posts on wines of the year.

The last year ended with one piece of sad news with the death of Pierre Galet on December 31st. Galet was the authority on grapes and ampelography. He pioneered means of identifying grape varieties, encouraged the collection and conservation of vines and wrote extensively on them. His Dictionnaire encyclopédique des cépages is authoritative and an endless source of information and fascination for me. Galet’s work will go on through his studies and students, a man who enhanced the world.

Appropriately I took delivery of a new Coutelou wine produced in 2018. It is made up of the many varieties which are planted in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. These include Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris amongst the twenty plus varieties, red and white, planted in the parcel. The 2018 vintage was much reduced by the mildew outbreak across the region and this vineyard produced very small quantities, eight cases in total from a parcel of more than half a hectare in area. Consequently Jeff added two more varieties to the mix, Carignan and Castets from Peilhan vineyard to bulk out the quantities. Castets is another rare variety, only recently added to the list of permitted grapes in Bordeaux having almost completely vanished from wine production only ten years ago.

The resulting wine is bottled as Couleurs Réunies and has a most attractive label reflecting that name. The wine itself is youthful, a rich purple in colour with huge black fruit flavours and fresh acidity. It is lovely now but will keep for a few years. A triumph from a very difficult vintage, which is producing excellent wines despite the problems.

Grenache on the left

And, so, to my last recommended wine from 2019. I promised that I would include one Coutelou wine and though I enjoyed many, many great bottles I finally chose, ironically, a single variety wine. That wine is Mise De Printemps Grenache. Made for early drinking I enjoyed this wine through the year, its red label meaning it was the wine I drank to celebrate Liverpool’s Champions League triumph for example. Lovely red fruits, soft and with a lovely cherry finish. A true vin de plaisir.


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Oddities #4

En francais

Puimisson is on the plain north of Béziers. The foothills of the Montagne Noire lie a few kilometres further north towards St. Chinian so it was a surprise to me when we came across this bunch during the vendanges. Why?

As you may know if you read my harvest reports this year was problematic because of the summer heat but also a spell of bad weather during flowering and fruit set in Spring. This led to problems of coulure and millerandage. This means that the new berries either don’t develop at all or very little, bunches look very uneven.

In the photos above you see evidence of this. A bunch with gaps where grapes should be, some grapes which have not changed colour and matured.

The photo above shows the aftermath of a sorting table after destemming. You will see lots of green unformed berries, coulure.

Moths were also busy ravaging some of the grapes, laying their eggs in the bunch gaps, the larvae then eating into the grapes. The photos below show one of the moths and then you can see a grape in the centre of the bunch with a hole where the worm has buried through, the juice then spoiling the bunch as it falls over it. Incidentally the bunch with the moth shows damage to the bunch caused by the late June heatwave.

However, the headline bunch was something different. I had to ask. Was it birds which had eaten the grapes? Well, I was on the right track but actually it was the work of a wild boar. These animals cause real damage in some parts of the Languedoc eating large quantities of grapes, some vignerons use electric fencing to keep them out. But that is mainly in the hills and wooded areas. Here on the plain they are much rarer but they are still around, perhaps the dry weather brought some further down to seek food.


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Oddities

En francais

In the next couple of posts I am going to look at some photos taken during vendanges which highlight some oddities and insights into vines and wines which I have not covered in the story of the harvest.

This photo may look like a bunch of red grapes has been placed in amongst bunches of white grapes. The oddity is in fact that they came from the same vines. The grapes are mainly Grenache Blanc, the others are Grenache Gris. Grape varieties are basically variations of one another.

The Grenache family (Noir, Gris and Blanc) are all the same DNA, with the slightest mutation between them. This is also true of the Pinot family for example. In this case one or two of the Grenache Blanc vines has somehow produced one of the mutations in some of the bunches, the result is that a Grenache Blanc vine produced Grenache Gris grapes.

Grape breeding is a very inexact science. The crossing of grape varieties produces new varieties, eg Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc produced Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if I was to try to cross Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc it is unlikely that I would produce Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the original cross is a unique event.

The vines we see across vineyards worldwide are often cuttings propagated from successful vines which show characteristics favoured by the producer, such as quality or quantity of grapes. These clones are planted but, again, slight variety amongst the billions of cells in the vine means that they could well be different to the original vine, not identical clones at all.

Therefore, this case of grapes was fascinating to me. It is not that unusual for this to happen, but it certainly piques my interest as I learn more about grape varieties and grape growing.


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Harvest 2019 – The End

En francais

Julien loads the last case of 2019

Life is full of surprises.

I went along to the cellars on Monday 23rd September in order to take some photographs of the pressing and progress with the making of the wines. When I arrived Jeff and Julien were on their own pressing the marc from the Cinsault. The free juice had been run off already into tank but the grape skins and pulp contain a lot of juice still so they are pressed adding more tannins and colour to the finished wine.

However, shifting tons of grape skins from a tank through a small doorway and then pumping it into the press is hard work and though they were managing well enough I decided to help out and get stuck in. It’s a proper workout pitchforking all that pulp, it gets very messy (bad news for my trainers) but job done. More remontages in the afternoon but also the chance to taste through the tanks before sending samples off for analysis.

Tasting wines from tank during or immediately after fermentation is challenging. Jeff is used to it and knows how a wine will emerge. I taste a lot of wines and know his very well by now but all I seek to achieve is an idea of acidity, tannin and fruit presence, to see if these elements are balanced. Happily it is good news all round. The wines tasted good, very promising for the vintage following on from last year’s excellent quality. The analyses are also good, there have been one or two scares along the way but the wines have worked themselves out with a little help from Jeff.

A week later I was a little surprised to hear that there was to be one last pick. This has happened in previous years, often picking Muscat for the solera. However, there were a few rows of Grenache Gris unpicked and so on September 30th, a month after harvest began we started over.

I picked all morning with the Moroccan team of four, my aching back a reminder of how quickly we get out of practice and rhythm. Then back to the cellar where the grapes, with a few vines of Macabeu, were pressed.

Grenache Gris is one of my favourite grapes, its pinkish colour marks it out and many of my favourite white wines from the Languedoc, and especially Roussillon, are made with the grape. The bunches were healthy, the wine should be very good.

In the afternoon we used the marc from the Grenache Gris. It was passed back through the destemmer and the grapes placed into a container with a little bit of water. This will make a piquette wine, a light quaffing wine. I was surprised to read a couple of days later that piquette wines are the new trend in the USA. It is something of a tradition in Puimisson. On Wednesday the piquette was already fermenting when we looked in the container.

There still remains much to do in the cellar but this was definitely the end, the final cases are in. I think.


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Harvest 2019 – Mother Nature’s Son

En francais

Sunrise over the Carignan

One of the flagship wines for the Coutelou range in recent years has been Flambadou, made from 100% Carignan Noir in the vineyard Rec D’Oulette (locally known as Chemin De Pailhès). Wine writer Jancis Robinson is amongst those who have praised Flambadou for its dark fruit flavours, subtle tannins and sheer pleasure as well as its ability to age well.

Therefore, it was something of a surprise that Carignan suffered so much this year, especially as a result of the intense heatwave of June 28th. This was the case for vines across the region and Carignan seemed to suffer more than most, a surprise as it is a native of Spain and the Mediterranean, and, therefore, accustomed to heat. Whole vines were grilled in some parts of the Languedoc.

Carignan after the heatwave

In the days following June 28th Jeff’s Carignan showed clear signs of stress, bunches were dried out especially towards the tip. It was almost like the bunch protected itself nearer to the vine itself but the extreme grapes were sacrificed. I have no scientific or botanical justification for that but that is the impression the bunches gave me. On Thursday September 19th (Day 16 of vendanges) it was time to harvest the Carignan.

I helped to pick for two or three hours. The rain of the previous week had left the ground very muddy underfoot so it was hard going. Some rows of the parcel were better than others, careful selection and cutting out of the dried sections was required. After picking I went back to help sorting in the cellar whilst the picking continued.

The Carignan was to be made whole bunch, the first time Jeff had ever done so. Don’t get me wrong there was plenty of good fruit but it had certainly suffered and quantity was, of course, well down on average. More Carignan was added to the tank from Peilhan on Friday 20th, a parcel less affected by the heat than the main Carignan, baffling.

The other problem with the vintage had been coulure and millerandage. These are two sides of the same coin, damage caused to the bunches during the flowering stage by wind so that some of the grapes did not form. The combination of that and the damage of June 28th meant that some bunches were quite open to the elements.

Regular readers will know that leaves the bunches prone to disease but fortunately that was not a problem this year. On the other hand ver de la grappe did take advantage. The grapevine moth lands on the loose bunch, lays its eggs and when they hatch the little worm (ver) buries into the grapes to form its cocoon. The grape is spoiled and its juice runs on to surrounding grapes which can attract rot. Whilst picking I came across one moth sitting on a bunch.

So, in many ways the Carignan was a reflection of the vintage – small quantity because of heat damage, coulure, millerandage and ver de la grappe. However, also a reflection in that much of the fruit was full flavoured, concentrated and delicious. On Monday 23rd we tasted some of the juice from the tank and it was delicious, I know I could be accused of bias but it is honestly true. Let’s not exaggerate the difficulties, the vast majority of the fruit is fine. The Carignan has most definitely been Mother Nature’s Son.

Carignan juice 4 days after picking

And that was it, picking for 2019 was finished. Much work remains in the cellar, for example pressing the reds which have been macerating on skins and pulp for up to two weeks. Jeff must also make the decisions about which wines will be blended with others to balance acidity, flavour and alcohol levels.

How the Carignan emerges will be my biggest point of interest for this vintage. What I am confident of is that Jeff Coutelou will make into something well worth drinking.

Days 16 & 17


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Harvest 2019 – The Long And Winding Road

En francais

It’s getting complicated

Into week three of the harvest, tired bodies all round especially my own as the old man of the group. Nicks and cuts on the hands, aching back and joints, bruises and bumps but still loving it all. Jeff meanwhile is faced with his annual puzzle of which wines go where, what needs to be done for each one to get it to its best, what might be assembled with what. It is a 3D jigsaw puzzle in action.

Two remontages at once

The little blackboards might remind us of what wine is in each tank, when it was picked, the story of its fermentation and transformation into wine from grape juice but Jeff needs to keep all this in his head (and spreadsheet) so we move the right wine from one tank to another, give one a remontage, another its pressing. He leads from the front, lifting and carrying heavy loads, driving, fixing creaking machinery. He must be very tired as well as stressed but he carries on regardless and we respond in turn.

Macabeu and Grenache Gris

Monday 16th, Day 13. A small harvest of Grenache Gris and Macabeu from Peilhan, a wine for blending perhaps or a very small cuvee. Principally it was a cellar day, Tuesday another. Pressing the Rome grapes, punching down the future orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, remontages and pigeages on all the tanks. Picking is the traditional image of vendanges but this cellar work is essential to nurture the juice, to supervise its progress into the 2019 vintage. Pressing the red fruit which has been on its skins and pulp also means that the marc which is leftover after the juice has been extracted can be taken away ready to be distilled. This is after all, Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou.

Wednesday 18th, Day 15 time to get back into the vineyard and pick the Mourvedre from Segrairals. Some of this had been picked on the Sunday by Jeff’s ‘Rugbymen’ friends to make their own cuvee and it was lovely fruit.

The slope of the vineyard means that lower parts can be a bit damp at times and the fruit not so good as the rest so careful picking and sorting ensued. The resulting juice was very good, reflecting the year’s story it is concentrated with quite high alcohol. I would predict that it will be blended though it has been a single grape cuvee in the past.

One welcome addition to the team this week was my friend Steeve from near Besancon in the Jura. He has visited many times and worked at Jeff’s last vendanges and to help with pruning in the winter. His enthusiasm and experience were very useful and helped to rejuvenate us all.

One last effort required, the Carignan remained to be picked. Its story this year is a summary of the vintage however, so I shall leave that until next time.

Day 13 Day 15


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Harvest 2019 – We Can Work It Out

En francais

Team work

If Day 10 saw the eight different grape varieties harvested Days 11 and 12 were a contrast. Friday September 13th was all about Grenache and Saturday was all about Cinsault. These two varieties together with Syrah make up the bulk of the Coutelou production, important for the various wines which emerge each year and for the economic well being of the domaine.

The Grenache was from La Garrigue, planted facing south towards the sun. It copes well with heat, Spanish on origin and grown all around the Mediterranean (known variously as Cannonau, Garnacha, Alicante amongst others). Traditionally this parcel gives good quality fruit which is blended with other wine to make Classe for example.

I was feeling under the weather on the Friday but a day sorting good bunches of tasty grapes helps to improve the day. There was plenty of it too, perhaps the recent rain had boosted the yield a little. A quick tour of the remaining unpicked vines to check maturity also boosted the spirits with some attractive Mourvedre in the pipeline.

Mourvedre

Saturday (I must have been feeling better as I took more photos) and the Cinsault of Segrairals. These grapes are used for the 5SO cuvée as well as being blended with other wines, eg for the rosé.

Cinsault grapes tend to be big and the bunches can suffer a little as a result. The large grapes leave gaps in the bunch which leaves it vulnerable to disease and insects getting in, especially ver de la grappe. This moth lays its eggs in the bunch and the grapes are pierced by the resulting larvae. This causes the juice to flow in the bunch and attract rot.

Ver de la grappe cocoon emerging from a Piquepoul Noir grape

Sorting in the vineyard and on the table in the cellar needs to be thorough. That said 2019 has happily been a year of little or no disease.

The day showed how different sections of the vineyard differed in the quality of grapes. There were parts which gave slightly under ripe fruit but others which provided big, black grapes which tasted great to eat. Since 2019 has been so hot and dry much of the wine this year is very concentrated and high in alcohol. The under ripe grapes in the Cinsault actually served a useful purpose in providing lower alcohol and adding more acidity. Nature sometimes finds its own solutions.

Nothing wrong with this Cinsault

Meanwhile in the cellar there is increasing amounts of work to do. More and more of the tanks are full and needing remontage, batonnage or pigeage. The team has to work well together, fortunately this year’s does just that.

The amphorae, filled on Thursday also needed punching down to soak the skins. Fermentation has already started as you may see in this video.

With the Cinsault picked there are now just two main picks left to do in 2019, the Mourvedre and the Carignan. An intensive two weeks has gone by, much work still remains.

Days 11 and 12